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Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Laws Seen by Some to be Moderating


Nigeria’s 12 northern states adopted Islamic law, or Sharia, seven years ago, when the country became a democracy. Islamic law allows for corporal punishment and even death for certain crimes, like adultery and theft. Most human rights leaders are against the harsh penalties prescribed under Sharia. Today, however, some activists say the application of Islamic law is more lenient than they envisioned. From Kano, Isiyaku Ahmed takes a look at the situation.

Despite fears that Sharia was going to be unduly harsh, many observers say it has turned out to be more moderate than first expected.

Dr. Ameen Al Deen Abubakar is the Chief Imam at the Da’awah Juma’at Mosque on Sulaiman Crescent in Kano. One recent morning he attended to the Muslim faithful, who come to see him with issues concerning the teachings and doctrines of Islam.

Ameen urges people living in Kano to accept Sharia as a way of life.

"Some people misunderstand the meaning of Sharia. People should not be afraid of it -- it is the law given to mankind by God. We can say in a nutshell that Sharia is completely being practiced in the north," he said.

Some observers say the application of Sharia in the north is evolving into a more moderate version acceptable even to some human rights groups.

Also, some of the strict punishments first prescribed by Islamic judges have been reduced or dismissed by appeals courts.

Barrister Mohammed Mouktakha Mahabbu is the secretary of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Nigeria, Kano State Chapter and a law lecturer at Kano State Polytechnic. He attributes the more moderate tone of Sharia to Nigeria’s democracy.

"This is not a [true] Islamic state," he said. "Some states of the Federation are practicing some aspect of Sharia. [However] it is the Constitution that is governing the affairs and the activities of the Federation as well as the state government. It is the Constitution that is [the ultimate determining legal document], not Sharia itself. [In contrast], in an ideal Islamic state, it is the whole country that is practicing Sharia law. That is quite different from the situation here in Nigeria."

Many businesses in Kano are adjusting to Sharia rules, such as separate taxi services for men and women. And, according to the London-based Economist Magazine, so are some aid agencies.

The Economist – in an article called Sharia Lite -- says the American Development Agency, USAID, is even funding one of the new “Islamiyya integrated schools.” Unlike older and stricter religious schools, the new ones are supported by the government. The magazine says this is an attempt to reconcile Western and Muslim education.

The schools teach a broad curriculum, including math, science, education, writing and the local language, Hausa. They also accept girls. The older schools only accept boys, who are taught Arabic and Quranic studies.

The Economist also says the British aid ministry is thinking of helping promote another effort by Islamic officials to educate the public about how to deal with drugs, pollution and petty crime. A Kano official is quoted as saying the programs are part of an effort to “catch up with modernity and globalization.”

Tijjani Mohammed is Kano state project manager for a US-government funded NGO called GHAIN, or Global HIV/AIDS Initiative. Tijjani says Sharia has not in any way interfered with the implementation of GHAIN policies.

"We are very mindful of some of the provisions of Sharia," he said, "especially as they relate to the public sphere and in the way we do things. A project like GHAIN, which is service-oriented, entails that we interact with people, with individuals in their homes, in facilities and especially hospitals. Therefore we are mindful really of the provisions of Sharia so that we don’t go against it."

But some say Sharia nevertheless infringes on some human rights. Law student Victor Eugene of Bayero University in Kano:

"Sharia is legal framework, but I see it as not in line with human rights. Look at it this way, if you are in a taxi and a lady is to join you, you either change position or move on to the driver passenger seat, which means segregation, and in public places you don’t sit on the same roll with women. Most of us just abide with the law, not that we like it in any form," he said.

Nigeria’s northern rulers say Sharia was instituted to help end endemic corruption and to restore morality. Some continue to complain about the tension between religious law and more lenient Western values. Others say that while some northern states subsidize Islamic schools, they do not support Christian ones. And, they complain they can not get land from government authorities to build Christian churches. In recent years, religious tensions have led to rioting—often resulting in the destruction of churches and homes.

National voter reaction to Sharia, unemployment and other issues are among the topics being debated in elections for National Assembly and presidential elections coming up in a few weeks.

For VOA Africa, I am Isiyaku Ahmed reporting from Kano, Nigeria.

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